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  • The Puzzle of Fanny Price
  • Joyce L. Jenkins

It is common to open a work regarding the merits of Mansfield Park by noting that Fanny Price is very difficult to like. Nietzsche might have described her as a "moral tarantula." 1 She sits, making negative moral judgments about the actions of others, while doing nothing herself. Fanny spends most of her time, literally, sitting or lying down. Austen describes her character as "supine." Comparing Fanny with her sister Susan, Austen says that "Susan was only acting on the same truths, and pursuing the same system, which her [Fanny's] own judgment acknowledged, but which her more supine and yielding temper would have shrunk from asserting. Susan tried to be useful, where she could only have gone away and cried" (MP, p. 395). 2 And Fanny cries all of the time. She cries at least thirteen times over the course of the novel. So, there are two questions about the novel that need to be answered. Why did Austen create a heroine who is so clearly distasteful? Why do some critics and philosophers see Fanny as a moral ideal or cultural icon? Some (Alasdair MacIntyre, Gilbert Ryle, Lionel Trilling) argue that Fanny is so unappealing just because Austen wants to be didactic 3 and force us to focus on virtue. According to Lionel Trilling, for example, Mansfield Park has a different moral message from Pride and Prejudice. "Its praise is not for social freedom, but for social stasis. It takes full notice of spiritedness, vivacity, celerity and lightness, but only to reject them as having nothing to do with virtue and happiness, as being, indeed, deterrents to the good life." 4 Others think that the infelicities of the novel and its heroine make it a parody of traditional feminine values and conservative moral thought in general. 5 Here, I shall argue that a path between these two extreme ways of reading the novel is correct. I shall argue, using Alasdair MacIntyre's discussion as a starting [End Page 346] point, that Austen does not cast Fanny as a moral ideal. If Austen is Aristotelian (a common view among philosophers) Fanny cannot be an ideal. And, although I agree with Johnson's view that those who have read the novel as morally conservative are wrong, I do not think that the novel exhibits global skepticism about traditional standards for the beautiful/feminine. Austen condemns the idea that women should be passive dolls who do not think for themselves, but she does not parody the traditional idea that women should be sweet, gentle, and caring. In my view, Fanny's character constitutes a criticism of passivity, and of rigid adherence to moral rules.

Alasdair MacIntyre's view is that Austen is an Aristotelian moralist with a Christian slant on the make-up of the virtues. He describes Fanny's character as an ideal of virtue. He argues that Fanny is pretty much lacking in charm just because Austen wanted to focus on the nature of virtue, which charm can obscure and which Fanny is meant to epitomize.

For charm is the characteristically modern quality which those who lack or simulate the virtues use to get by in situations of characteristically modern social life . . . And the charm of an Elizabeth Bennett . . . may mislead us . . . Fanny is charmless; she has only the virtues, the genuine virtues to protect her . . . and when she disobeys her guardian, Sir Thomas Bertram, and refuses marriage to Henry Crawford it can only be because of what constancy requires. In so refusing she places the danger of losing her soul before the reward of gaining what for her would be a whole world. She pursues virtue for the sake of a certain kind of happiness and not for its utility. 6

So, MacIntyre thinks that Fanny Price is meant to be a stripped down model of virtue, with constancy being the keystone virtue that she exhibits. "Constancy is crucial in at least two novels, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, in each of which it is a central virtue of the heroine . . . And without constancy all the other virtues to some degree lose their point" (AV, p. 242).

But when constancy is discussed...


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pp. 346-360
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